A leadership list in reverse

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I’m insanely jealous of those who write short and shallow bestselling books that contain simplistic formulas purporting to solve complex problems. Go to any bookstore and you’ll find any number of surefire prescriptions for achieving obscene wealth (hint: They work, for the authors, to the extent people buy their books and attend their seminars). You’ll find, if you’re an unattractive and obnoxious guy, quite a few experts in the art of attracting beautiful women (curiously, if you’re an unattractive and obnoxious woman wanting to return the favor you’ll find fewer choices).

And of course, you’ll find Who Moved My Cheese.

I don’t know that Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People counts. Covey doesn’t pretend any of the habits are easily acquired and practiced. To his credit, he says the exact opposite. They require personal discipline.

What’s annoying about 7 Habits, in addition to its success, is its unrelentingly positive tone. There’s little satisfaction to be had in reading about how you can achieve your own personal success through hard work, compared to the joy of criticizing others, especially when they are prominent.

To that end, here’s an outline for a book I’m sure would be a colossal best-seller: The 7 Habits of Truly Execrable Leaders. They are:

  • Arrogance: Truly awful leaders know, deep in their bones, that they’re better than the people who work for them. It must be true. Otherwise the poor slobs would be their peers or superiors. Arrogance isn’t merely the first bad habit. It’s also a root cause of all the rest, either by driving them or from feeding on them.
  • Willful Ignorance: Visit your local library and you’ll understand that the human skull is too small to contain even a tiny fraction of everything that’s known (ignoring the epistemological vagueness of “known”). So ignorance is unavoidable. Willful ignorance is a different matter. Too many leaders carefully insulate themselves from any information that doesn’t fit their preconceptions, and from people who might provide it.
  • Authoritarian Decisions: Authoritarian decision-making is the best way to operate in a crisis. When time counts and any decision is better than no decision, leaders shouldn’t hesitate to bark out orders. When, on the other hand, you have time to learn and reflect, “any decision” is no longer the best you can aspire to.
  • Privilege: Its Latin roots are the words for “private” and “law.” That’s what it is in practice, too, except for the Latin part. Bad leaders give themselves special privileges. Whether they’re called privileges, perks, or “understandings,” they make it clear: I hold you to higher standards than those I set for myself.
  • Aristocracy: Privilege is bad enough. When a leader extends privilege to an inner circle, the organization now has a club. When membership in the club depends solely on loyalty and the ability to “get along,” and not on, for example, competence, the leader’s awfulness approaches perfection.
  • Celebrity: Most of us understand that every person is the hero of his or her own movie. Awful leaders assume they are the heroes of our movies as well as their own. It is, at the end of the day, all about them.
  • One redeeming virtue: Every bad leader has a redeeming virtue. It’s a requirement, in part because without at least one, the truly awful leader would instead be the truly pathetic failure. You don’t get into a leadership role without something going for you.

In some respects, the redeeming virtue is the worst feature of the truly awful leader. It’s gives their followers an excuse to be followers, and it often gives outside observers the illusion that the leader isn’t that bad after all. After all, someone who loves dogs and horses can’t be all bad, can they?

Even worse than this, the redeeming virtue is what allows even the worst leaders to maintain their inflated self image. Whenever they’re at risk of doubting themselves they can rest easy, surrounded by the comfort of their redeeming virtue.

You might be asking yourself, right about now, how it is that yours truly has such certain knowledge of the psychology of the awful leader. The answer is simple, and unnerving.

The 7 Habits of Truly Execrable Leaders could just as easily be titled The 7 Occupational Hazards of All Leaders at All Times. Each one represents a temptation, and a trap that’s easy for any leader to fall into and very hard to escape — especially for the unwary.

Including me.